The Rockies find themselves in something of an unenviable spot, coming off a 74-win season likely losing two of their most talented homegrown players — Trevor Story and Jon Gray — in free agency. Gray has already inked a four-year deal with the Rangers, and Story is widely expected to sign elsewhere, leaving the Rockies with a compensatory draft pick. They’re also staring up from fourth place at a pair of 100-plus win teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as one of baseball’s most aggressive front offices (and largest payrolls) in San Diego.
Many clubs in this spot would rebuild, but the Rockies (despite a thin farm system) have signaled no intent to do so. Quite to the contrary, newly minted GM Bill Schmidt seems keen on attempting to put together a competitive club next year. The Rox already re-signed first baseman C.J. Cron and extended righty Antonio Senzatela and catcher Elias Diaz. They resisted trading not only Story and Gray but controllable pitchers like German Marquez and Kyle Freeland at the July 30 deadline. As recently as two weeks ago, they were reported to be among the teams with interest in signing Kris Bryant.
If the Rockies are going to contend, they’ll need upgrades at various spots on the roster, with shortstop, the outfield and the bullpen standing out as potential areas of need. Still, despite that outfield need, both Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post and Nick Groke of The Athletic have at least raised the possibility of trading an outfielder away when the current transaction freeze is lifted: Raimel Tapia.
The 27-year-old Tapia (28 in February) has taken the lion’s share of playing time in left field for the Rox over the past three seasons, hitting at a combined .282/.327/.394 batting line (solid on the surface but a 79 wRC+). Tapia has just 16 home runs through 1186 plate appearances in that time, but he’s swiped 37 bags (with a 77.1% success rate). His 6.3% walk rate over the past three seasons is well below the league average, but he also rarely strikes out (17.5%, including a career-best 13.1% in 2021).
Tapia has received solid marks in left field from metrics like Defensive Runs Saved (4), Ultimate Zone Rating (6.0) and Outs Above Average (7) since emerging as a regular in the lineup at Coors Field. He’s at least capable of playing center in a pinch, having logged 189 innings there in his career (15 this past season, none in 2020, 83 in 2019).
He’s not the star the Rox might’ve hoped for when he ranked among the sport’s 50 best prospects in the 2016-17 offseason, but Tapia is a solid defender with above-average speed and good bat-to-ball skills. With two years of club control remaining and a projected $3.9MM salary in 2022 (courtesy of MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz), he’s also plenty affordable.
Perhaps that makes him something of an odd candidate to be moved, given the Rockies’ desire to compete, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise for the Rox to seek more punch in an outfield that was one of the least-productive in MLB last year. Rockies outfielders ranked 29th in MLB with an 82 wRC+, leading only the Royals (81). Only the D-backs (43) received fewer home runs from their outfielders as a group than Colorado (46, tied with Kansas City and Cleveland).
If the Rockies indeed secure an offensive upgrade in the outfield, it’s going to be tougher to find at-bats for Tapia. Charlie Blackmon, who’ll be paid $21MM next season, will remain a fixture in right field. Colorado has given Tapia all of 15 innings in center over the past two seasons even as Blackmon has moved off the position, suggesting that they prefer Tapia to remain in left. That’s where the vast majority of remaining free-agent outfielders would need to slot in, and if Colorado doesn’t want to play Tapia in center, he’d be left without a big role. He’s out of minor league options as well, so sending him down is out of the question.
The Rockies could always carry Tapia as a reserve outfielder, but they also have Sam Hilliard, Garrett Hampson, Yonathan Daza and Connor Joe as options. All four will earn less than Tapia in 2022, and Daza, like Tapia, out of minor league options. Carrying a pair out-of-options outfielders on the bench obviously wouldn’t be an optimal setup, and the right-handed-hitting Daza better complements lefties like Blackmon and Hilliard than Tapia, a fellow lefty hitter.
The return on Tapia wouldn’t figure to be enormous. He could net the Rox some secondary prospects or perhaps be swapped for an arm to slot directly into the big league bullpen. With many teams needing some help in the outfield — the Phillies, Guardians, White Sox, Marlins and Nationals, to name a few — it stands to reason that an affordable 28-year-old with two years of remaining club control would generate interest. Tapia isn’t a middle-of-the-order bat, but his blend of speed, defense, bat-to-ball skills and affordable club control ought to be enough for a few other teams to inquire on the former top prospect as they look to round out their own outfield mixes.